Thursday 11 March 2010

The Inside Man

Eric Wills, "The Inside man", Preservation (January/February 2010).
Milette then led Hoyt to the barn. Nearly every inch of that 600-square-foot space was filled with artifacts—thousands of them—including a mounted collection of projectile points arranged to spell "Ken Milette." Milette's obsession with artifacts ("You're the first person to touch these things in five, six thousand years," he said) was evident. But what really caught Hoyt's attention was a small piece of Styrofoam filled with ancient Native American teeth, which Milette said had come from the site of a buffalo jump. Back in the kitchen, Milette revealed his asking price for the entire collection: $1 million. Was Hoyt interested? Heck yes, Hoyt was interested, and he had the means, too, having just inherited a large portfolio of stocks. But he couldn't make a decision of such magnitude without bringing his wife to see the collection. Thinking he was on the verge of a massive payday, Milette poured gin-and-tonics, and the two men clinked glasses. What Milette didn't know was that Thomas Hoyt's real name was Todd Swain. And that he wasn't an artifact collector but a National Park Service special agent who investigates illegal archaeological looting on public lands.
This is a portion of the article which Todd Bigelow's photographs were to illustrate. It makes pretty disturbing reading.

"Despite slowly evolving attitudes about the importance of protecting America's cultural heritage, looting remains as insidious and widespread a problem as it was three decades ago". According to the most recent Department of the Interior statistics, it turns out that in recent years there have been on average 840 instances of looting annually on public lands in the USA - that is 840 known cases. "On average, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has one ranger on patrol for approximately every million acres — a staggering statistic that gives insight into how underfunding has left western lands vulnerable to a host of threats [...]. The odds of catching someone in the act of looting rival those of winning the Powerball".
"In a recent paper in the Yearbook of Cultural Property Law, Swain reported that approximately 15 percent of looting cases get solved. Moreover, based on data from three national parks, and other sites, he demonstrated that looting incidents often go unreported, either because rangers don't file papers or because they log cases under different codes. "Should the federal government actually look," he wrote, "they will find that the true scope of the looting problem is staggering, that our shared cultural heritage is disappearing before our eyes." [...]
The question [...] is how to convince people that digging on a Native American burial site is no different from disturbing colonial graves in Jamestown. [...] Martin McAllister, whose consulting firm offers ARPA classes to educate prosecutors, law enforcement officers, and archaeologists on the nuances of the law, says market forces remain a significant part of the problem. So long as the demand for artifacts remains strong (German collectors, for example, have a penchant for Native American objects), and so long as the odds of getting caught remain slim, major commercial looters, especially, will continue to ply their trade. One thing's for sure: The status quo is unsustainable.

One of the reactions of US collectors to the looting of ancient sites which is producing some of the artefacts that are finding their way (euphemism) to the US market where they are indistinguishable from those obtained by more legitimate means is that it is the "fault of the foreign governments for not guarding the sites properly". If a state as wealthy as the US is unable to guard sites on its own property, then US collectors really have a nerve suggesting that other nations should do it to a better degree than can be achieved in the US. McAllister is right, it is the "market forces" and in particular the way that market is currently (dis)organized that comprise a significant part of the problem.

Among the usual rash of online comments to the article, one is notable, "Brian" wrote:
I am a high school history teacher and this article has convinced me to teach a special lesson to my students. I studied anthropology in college and was deeply horrified by the realization of the historic destruction which is widespread across the world. I had never thought about giving a special lesson on this before.
I think we need a lot more of this in schools, not just in the US.

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